This week, an interview with screenwriter ANNA SYMON. Anna was one of the stand-out writers on the 2013 Channel 4 screenwriting course, and since then, she has had the enormous success her talent and hard work deserves.
You will see from this interview just how conscientious Anna is, how much thought, work and intelligence she’s invested in her screenwriting career. There is so much invaluable advice here. Read, learn and be inspired!
Anna is currently writing an episode of epic 1930s drama INDIAN SUMMERS (10 x 1 hr) for New Pictures / C4 (tx 2015) and an episode of THE WHITE PRINCESS (12 x 1 hr) for Company Pictures / Starz. This is an adaptation of Philippa’s Gregory’s book and the sequel to the Emmy nominated WHITE QUEEN. She is about to start writing her first original script commission SPECIAL for Lovely Day / Sky. She has just finished REVELATION, (2 x 2 hr) a found footage drama for Raw TV / The History Channel.
Anna is developing original projects with Company Pictures, ITV Studios, World Productions, Look Out Point and Fifty Fathoms.
Anna has also written plays for BBC Radio 4 and short films including BIFA nominated FRIDAY. Anna was selected for the 2013 4Screenwriting talent scheme.
Before starting her writing career, Anna worked as a producer/ director in current affairs and documentaries. Anna is represented by Tanya Tillett at the Knight Hall Agency.
1 WHERE DO YOU WRITE ?
I always write at home if I’m at script stage. But if I’m thinking, planning I like to go out and about a bit – to a cafe or for a long walk. Anything to stop me from starting the script process too soon!
2 WHEN DO YOU WRITE?
I’m really boring – although one of the best aspects of being a writer is escaping the 9 to 5, I tend to do those hours. That said, by mid-afternoon if it’s gone well I’ve normally had enough. I sometimes do a couple more hours of something less intense, like research or emails.
3 WHAT SORT OF STORIES EXCITE YOU?
As a rule, anything that’s character led rather than genre. I love the complexity of character development that you get in a long TV series and for that reason I think TV drama is much more exciting than film for me at the moment. I also love stories that ‘mean something’ or have something to say / state of the nation pieces like OCCUPATION, STATE OF PLAY, SEX TRAFFIC. These stories tend to play out over three to six hours and are one-offs. In that sense they are like stage plays in some ways.
I also have a soft spot for love stories and rom coms…
4 WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF BUILDING A GREAT CHARACTER?
That is such a hard question, particularly in scriptwriting. In novels you get a chance to describe someone in great detail. In a script you have to know your character and then bring them to life normally in just one line of description and then by what they do and say. So you have to know them very well in order for other people to get them in economy.
For me, I don’t really think of character as separate from story. A character becomes great because of the journey they go on. For example, Walter White in Breaking Bad, isn’t the most interesting character when we first meet him. He is a nerdy science teacher who loves his family. But he becomes interesting when he decides to go ‘against character’ and cook meth and from there develops into a very different ‘character’ than the one we first meet. So it is the conflict between who he is and what he does that makes him and the story so interesting. There are so many examples of this – from Hamlet to Don Draper to Rev – and also the reason that so many writers have chosen to focus on the maverick cop, the tart with a heart, the criminal with a strong moral code etc etc. If you think about it, the story comes from the conflict between their inner character and the needs of their job / situation. So I suppose the most important aspect of building a great character for me is to know the journey they are going to go on so that the character will get a chance to be fully stretched – and to shine.
5, 6 2 WRITERS WHO HAVE INSPIRED YOU AND WHY
Sally Wainwright is the most inspiring TV writer for me at the moment. She can do funny and tragic and thriller – literally everything. It’s because she writes characters so well, so affectionately and truthfully, and is so brilliant at plotting and story, that she can then send them on terrifically exciting journeys. It’s great that she can write across all those tones and story types because there are a lot of development people and execs that like to pigeon hole writers as being good at only one particular type of show. I think she’s proof that that isn’t the case….although maybe the fact that she is one of very few people writing across genres, maybe means that actually she is a genius and most people can’t do that!
As a novelist, Sarah Waters has a lot to teach screenwriters. She has the most incredible grasp of narrative. Every page of every chapter of her books (apart from the backwards WW2 one whose name I’ve temporarily forgotten) (ed – The Night Watch) takes the story forward and keeps you compelled. That may sounds obvious but a lot of novels and less good TV takes you off in tangents…whereas she is rigorously pushing on, story, story, story. In The Little Stranger you are kept guessing about the central question of the whole book until the very last line of the last chapter. Masterful.
7, 8 2 TV SHOWS THAT HAVE INSPIRED YOU AND WHY
Six Feet Under is my favourite TV show of all time – a fascinating world (a funeral home), extraordinarily rich characters – each having a strong internal conflict as above – and something very real to say about the meaning of life (and death). I can’t wait to find the time to watch the box set all over again.
I love Jed Mercurio. The Line of Duty and particularly Bodies (it was set in a gynaecology / obstetrics ward) both explore the politics and dynamics / corruption of an institution. I think this is something that TV can do very well and should do more of. When it’s working and the characters are so complex and the world is so authentic and recognisable you just want to stay there and find out what’s going on.
9, 10 2 FILMS THAT HAVE INSPIRED YOU AND WHY
Titanic. It’s an interesting one because I saw it before I was a writer and if someone had asked me then if it was a good script I would have said no as there was some really very dodgy dialogue in there! But then I watched it again, when I was beginning to think about story and structure and I realised that it was one of the most brilliantly structured scripts I’ve ever seen. So it inspired me – not because it’s the best movie in the world – but because it made me understand what it means to be a scriptwriter which is shaping a story for maximum emotional engagement and entertainment rather than writing some good lines (although obviously it helps if you can do that too!)
Chinatown…for obvious reasons. I’d advise anyone who hasn’t seen this film to do so immediately.
11 1 THEATRE SHOW THAT HAS INSPIRED YOU AND WHY
Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood, most recently. Another example for me of a very entertaining piece of drama that had ‘something to say’ wrapped up in an exciting thriller. I rarely see plays that make me want to write one but this certainly did. The set was filmic, mesmerising and the story was constantly engaging and surprising and I learnt a lot about contemporary China. A great title as well.
12 DO YOU OUTLINE BEFORE YOU START WRITING?
Always, always. Like most people I do find it the most boring part of the process but I can’t write unless I know where I’m going. I particularly hate writing a long treatment but a lot of TV work requires you to do this. I find using index cards really useful as they do clearly, visually show you where your story holes are. Sometimes at that point, I fill them in with ideas for scenes, plot that I know aren’t really right but they allow me to start writing the script…and then while doing so better ideas come. Quite often, if I have a structural problem, I will go back to an outline or cards after the first draft. It’s much easier to see where a story isn’t working when it’s condensed into a shorter form.
13 1 PIECE OF ADVICE FOR SCREENWRITERS JUST STARTING OUT
I have two:
Never, ever send out a script until it is ready. I made the mistake a few times of meeting someone at an industry do and asking them to read something and then – when they miraculously agreed – thought, shit, they’ll forget who I am unless I do it today, this week or whatever…and then sent something that wasn’t great…and then never heard from them again. It’s a really slow industry. People remember and people know that it takes time to write an amazing script so don’t rush in. The best way to know if your script is ready is to ask someone you trust (who understands scripts) to read it and give you honest feedback. Normally they will (hopefully quite gently) ask you about something they didn’t quite get or like and it’ll be the thing you didn’t quite like yourself but thought you had buried. Go away and look at that again. And then ask them or someone else to read it again. Yes, it’s painful.
Don’t work in isolation. Go out and meet people. It’s such a social, collaborative industry so dive in there. Go on courses, go to screenings, join a writers group, follow blogs etc etc. Not only will you meet people who may one day give you a job, more importantly it will put your own work into context. You will hear a writer talk about how hard it was to get their film financed for whatever reason or you will talk to a producer that tells you why they were attracted to the script they are currently developing…and every one of these conversations will help you make good decisions about your own career. At the end of the day, unless you are very lucky, you won’t become a commissioned writer by sitting at home.
14 WHAT SHOULD THE FILM \ TV INDUSTRY BE DOING FOR SCREENWRITERS THAT IT ISN’T?
More training. A mini-plug for Philip here, but he is running one of the very few broadcaster led screenwriting talent schemes called 4Screenwriting. It was amazing and has massively helped my career, although I only ‘graduated’ in 2013. I don’t think it costs the industry much and they reap the huge benefit of finding new voices. Why aren’t the BBC, Sky and ITV doing the same thing?
I think TV is pretty good at recognising the importance of the writer. Not so film – even though you will hear a lot of people pretending this is not the case. I heard a story from my agent the other day about a very well known production company not wanting a writer in the edit suite of the film they had written. This wasn’t because they had fallen out in any way, this was at the start of the process when they were excited and signing contracts. The company just didn’t see the point. And to me that says it all. No wonder audiences think that writers only do the dialogue (as I used to myself!) There needs to be a whole re-education programme in the film industry to recognise the importance of the writer.
15 WAS THERE A SPECIFIC MOMENT THAT MADE YOU START WRITING AND IF SO WHAT WAS IT?
Yes. I used to make documentaries and I was in a prison talking to a drugs mule about the time she was sitting in a hotel room in Amsterdam trying to decide whether to smuggle a suitcase of cocaine into London Airport. She was having second thoughts. It was the biggest decision of her life, the stakes were ridiculously high. She decided to do it and was caught – which was of course how I met her.
I had been thinking about writing for a while but when I heard that story I thought – I can’t do justice to do this in a doc. This would make an amazing fictional story. And it was the first screenplay I wrote. Which has never been made. Or optioned. But it did help get me an agent.
16 WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN THEN THAT YOU KNOW NOW?
Honestly? That my self-belief was justified, that it would work out. It would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights.
17 WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING ABOUT SCREENWRITING?
Keeping going while you are still un-commissioned and desperately learning your craft – and then dealing with the rejections.
You have to find a way to throw your heart and soul at the idea, treatment, script that you are working on, love it more than your own child and then – when some bastard rejects it – be able to distance yourself emotionally, not take it personally and move on. It’s so, so hard. I’ve found that the only cure is to plunge yourself into another script and start the same dysfunctional relationship all over again.
That said, it does get easier as you build up more projects and relationships. You can start to think of yourself as running an orphanage of unruly children that you are trying to get adopted. If someone shows an interest in one child, you must primp it up, show it in its best light and present it. But if it doesn’t get adopted you must commiserate with the child but tell it that adopter just didn’t want a cute little girl with sticky out ears – he wanted a boy with a quirky sense of humour. Meanwhile you desperately search your ranks for that boy…although you’re also aware that the orphanage down the road has one such boy ready to go. I may have stretched the metaphor here – but I do think it’s helpful to always contextualise your rejections (and career in general) by thinking about the needs of the producer / development exec / broadcaster who has rejected you rather than focus on whether you as a writer are ‘good enough’.
18 WHAT IS THE MOST ENJOYABLE THING ABOUT SCREENWRITING?l
Writing. I have met writers who don’t like writing. This is I do not understand.
19 WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF (AS A WRITER) FIVE YEARS FROM NOW?
I have no, no idea. One thing I have learned is how fickle the industry is and how impossible it is to plan your career. Where would I like to be? I’d love to have my own series on TV, that would be the dream.
20 AND FINALLY – ONE SURPRISING (NON-WRITING RELATED!) FACT ABOUT YOU.
I sang with Pavarotti at the Royal Opera House as a child.
A huge thank you to Anna for this brilliant insight into life as a TV screenwriter in the UK
Until next week,
All the best
Nov 28th 2014